The Summer Piano Recital put on by the Leicester International Muisc Festival was this year a real Spectacular. It was given by the Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, who has been domiciled in the UK for a number of years and who has built a formidable career since then. From this his first appearance in the city, one could see precisely why this has been the case.
To be honest, I had not been looking forward to the recital with quite the anticipation of previous years. I knew just one and a half of the works being played (Saint Saens Dance Macabre was naturally in a transcription) and had not heard the artist in performance or recording. Also in recent years I have tended to be rather sceptical about the latest Russian virtuoso to emerge to be praised by the musical press for hammering the keyboard into submission with eye popping displays of musical fireworks. In the end, if that is all, my faculties tend to dull and eventually shut down.
Well , that most certainly did not occur in this recital. True there was plenty of amazing piano playing on display. Indeed it kept on coming. For instance, the second half of the recital began with a Nocturne by Scriabin written solely for the left hand in which if you shut your eyes such was the skill of composer and instrumentalist one would have sworn that it was written for both hands. The transcription of Dance Macabre completely erased any possibility of odious comparisons with the colours of the orchestral version so overwhelming was the impetus of the playing. However, the point to be made is that even in these works never did one feel that the pianist was tearing a passion to tatters. The sound in the former never hardened and the occasional lightness of wit in the latter was fully there in the performance. In summary, then, even in the most overtly virtuosic music artistry was felt to be at the centre of the performance.
In the first half, In Haydn’s Sonata No. 47 and in Beethoven’s Bagatelles op.126 this had been already was made absolutely clear. I had never heard either work . In regard to the Haydn this was not perhaps so surprising since, despite a number of front rank pianists espousing the composer’s works for piano in recordings, they are still rarities in performance. On the evidence of this performance of this work they most certainly should not be. When played with the propulsive energy that featured here, the work emerged as music that dramatically strained classical conventions. Indeed occasionally one felt one might have been listening to Beethoven. All this was helped by the wonderful classical clarity of the performance, the superb crispness of articulation coupled with occasional delightful Haydnesque lightness of touch and wit.
This was carried over to the Beethoven. It was one of those moments in the concert hall where the performance was such that you wondered how was it possible that you had never heard this music before. Perhaps it is the title itself which suggests scraps from the master’s table. However, as played here it was obvious that this was music that could not have been further from such a description. What particularly caught the attention was the breathtaking beauty of passages in No’s 4 and 5 where the pianist at times conjured a wonderfully liquid sound of velvet. In the more familiar territory of Chopin’s Ballade No.4 there was once again evidence of a startlingly original musical mind shaping the music. I have heard more obviously poetic interpretations of this work but none which have shaped the drama of the piece more convincingly.
The same might no doubt be said of the performance of Scriabin’s 5th Sonata. However, I am afraid I must admit that I struggle to respond to this composer’s output at its most ambitious. As a literary person I decline to respond to what I discovered from a recording I own had prefaced this sonata: I call you to life, mysterious forces!
Drowned in the obscure depths
Of the creative spirit, timid
Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity.
How does one take such stuff seriously? Interestingly I found in the Gramophone archive of some years ago this pianist remarking when in an article discussing his famous recording of the Scriabin sonatas that he felt at times a trifle unnerved when immersing himself in the composer’s fevered world for any length of time. Normally, I admire the ambition of those who would push back the frontiers, such as Scriabin’s contemporaries Debussy, Mahler and Stravinsky, all of whom created an utterly distinctive and coherent sound world of their own. However, I am afraid in Scriabin’s case I fail generally to respond to what sounds to me to be music of earth shattering intentions which result all too often in unmemorable repetition and grandiose gesture. Alas, not even this fine artist, with all his pianistic powers, could on the night really persuade me otherwise.
Never mind , the recital was one to remember. It was summed up at the end with the pianist giving the piano a pat as a partner in what had been overall a fascinating journey of discovery.
Now we sign off until September, when comes what looks to me a truly exciting Leicester International Music Festival of music written in The New World and featuring composers such as Dvorak, Rachmaninov and Thea Musgrave. The latter, who, after having gone to live in the USA in 1972, and who visited the Festival as composer in residence early in this century, is now 90. However, I am told that she hopes to travel to Leicester to hear some of her music performed. My memories of her music are that she is a major composer with a very individual personality, who also when she was here immersed herself in the Festival.
The Festival is from Sept 20th -22nd and is packed full with wonderful music played by front rank artists from around the globe. Details and also ways of booking are to be found on the Festival website. This is truly not an occasion to miss.